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Symbols principle

Principles | Symbols principle

What is a symbol? | How do they work? | What symbols are there? | So what?


When we communicate, we often forget that there is more to it than words. There is body language, of course. There are also the myriad of symbols that surround us, powerfully pushing us into programmed behaviors.

What is a symbol?

Symbols are communications that have specific meaning. Usually visual, symbols act as communication short-cuts that convey one or more messages that have been previously learned by both the sender and the recipient. 

How do they work?

Because symbols are short-cuts they usually by-pass conscious consideration, triggering deeply embedded subconscious responses. When you see a person in a Lexus, a wide range of associations about them immediately spring to mind, often accompanied by feelings such as jealousy or inferiority.

A common persuasive purpose of symbols is to communicate power. We are so programmed to conform with many symbols, such as a policeman's uniform, that we do not pause to question whether their request is legitimate and reasonable.

Symbols also constrain their users. When corporate executives don their dark pin-striped suits, they will act the part, literally, which may be a far cry from the wacky and fun-loving parent they are at home.

What symbols are there?

There are common symbols that you meet everywhere. Common groups of symbols are dress, names and actions.


Uniforms and suits are often symbols of raw power that demand to be obeyed. Designer clothes and other smart wear convey that the wearer is rich (and thus worth associated with).

Dress also includes all things you attach to yourself, including shoes, coats, jewelry, spectacles and so on. In the wider sense, it includes the things we place around us, including cars, homes and offices (along with their fixtures and fitting).


Your name is a symbol that represents you. More commonly, symbols are the names of companies as embedded in logos, brand names, brochures, badges and so on. All of these are intended to convey the  brand message and associations.


A complete set of actions can be symbolic, aimed to convey a deeper meaning than a naive visitor might assume. Sending a naughty child to bed can be a significant act of symbolism that other children understand well. 

Rituals are symbolic acts. Such acts are often special to individual institutions. For example, weddings, funerals and all other religious services are complete symbolic acts and also contain many symbolic moments within them, such as the exchanging of rings in a wedding.

So What?

So to persuade others, dress well, in a way that conveys your powerful position. Also associate with yourself other accoutrements that demonstrate your success and generally make you attractive.

Be symbolic in you actions. Use drama carefully (without over-doing it, of course). You can even move symbolically, pointing, holding out your palms in supplication and so on.  

See also

Theories about meaning


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